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Hot Potato
by Bob Kuska / June 3, 2004

This excerpt from the book Hot Potato: How Washington and New York Gave Birth to Black Basketball and Changed America's Game Forever is courtesy of University or Virginia Press.
No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
This book may be ordered online at University of Virginia Press. You can also place your order via phone at 1-800-831-3406.

On a cold Christmas night in 1910, basketball celebrated its coming-out party as popular entertainment in black New York. A record-smashing two-thousand-plus spectators, including many prominent local black socialites, poured into Manhattan Casino's old-time spectator gallery to watch Washington's champion 12th Street YMCA place its unbeaten streak on the line against the Alpha Physical Culture Club.

That Alpha hosted this break-out promotion was in many ways predictable. Unlike St. Christopher, Alpha had no stabilizing financial ties to a wealthy church. The club kept afloat financially by throwing garden parties, gymnastics demonstrations, and other fund-raising events. So it was only a matter of time before Conrad Norman, Alpha's shrewd young president, milked his basketball team for all it was worth.

Norman had thrown the club's first "basketball party" during the 1909-10 season when Alpha entertained the 12th Street YMCA. Though the game drew twelve hundred fans, by far the largest crowd to date, Manhattan Casino still had been only half full. By touting his second intercity clash with 12th Street as a must-see holiday attraction and nearly filling Manhattan Casino to the brim, Norman and his crew awakened the other amateur athletic clubs to the game's financial possibilities. As time would tell, this awareness would slowly lead the amateur clubs down the road toward increased competition, greed, jealousy, and professionalism.

On this record-setting night, however, all seemed right for the hometown Alphas, who wore a trademark "A" on the front of their blue jerseys. In these days when teams ran set plays off the mandatory jump ball after each made basket, the taller Big Babe Thomas toyed with 12th Street's Ed Henderson throughout the first half, slapping the basketball into play and allowing Alpha to fly back on the offensive, where it could dominate the ball, the clock, and the scoreboard.

Midway through the second half, Henderson realized he was fighting a losing battle with the octopus-armed Thomas. He voluntarily switched to one of the guard positions and let a tall but inexperienced player, George Gilmore, try his luck jumping center with Thomas. It was a risky proposition, like switching quarterbacks in the middle of a football game. The center was the playmaker who distributed the basketball, and as a newcomer on the YMCA team, Gilmore might be out of sync offensively with his teammates even if he outjumped Thomas. The concerns immediately proved unfounded. "Slender and gimlet-like," wrote the Washington Evening Star, Gilmore rose to the occasion, winning the taps and teaming with Henderson and Hudson Oliver to move the basketball around the horn and send the YMCA on a game-ending offensive blitz. When the smoke cleared, 12th Street had escaped with a tense 24-19 victory, pushing its unbeaten string to eleven straight.

Afterward, the 12th Streeters huddled in their dressing room to savor the win--and to say goodbye. Captain Ed Henderson, who had married his longtime sweetheart, Mary Ellen Meriwether, the night before, informed his teammates that he would make good on his vow to retire after the Alpha contest. Without Henderson to navigate the team's affairs on and off the court, all players agreed: 12th Street had reached the end of the road.

The team's loss soon became Howard University's gain. YMCA players Gilmore, Oliver, Ed Gray, Henry Nixon, and Doc Curtis already were enrolled at Howard University, and they simply joined the college's basketball team. In one swoop, Howard went from a bit player on the black basketball scene to its defending national champion, a dramatic change of fortune for a college that still had no gymnasium.

After the Christmas holidays, the Howard Big Five continued its title defense without Henderson. College and club teams still had no intercity leagues or conferences, nor had anyone thought to organize a postseason tournament to crown a regional or national champion. Because the early teams functioned as independents, Howard's goal was to schedule and defeat the best quintets in the black game, particularly those in New York. If the team defeated all its opponents--including in a two- or three- game series, as teams often played in those days--public opinion would crown Howard the world champion of the black amateur game.

In game one of its six-game season, Howard traveled to Manhattan Casino to face the most controversial quintet in black basketball, the New York All-Stars. Formed in the fall of 1910, the All-Stars were the creation of former St. Christopher star Major A. Hart, a pudgy, light-skinned man who appeared to be in his thirties. Though he never said exactly why he had left St. Christopher, Hart clearly had grown disenchanted with the New York club scene, which he viewed as petty, two-faced, and disorganized.

"That this game has taken a firm hold on our people has been demonstrated beyond a doubt," wrote Hart. "Now it is up to the players and their friends [to advance the black game] by not only forming a basketball league among the teams, but playing good, fast, clean games, eliminating therefrom all petty jealousies, quarrels and the little meannesses that have a tendency to disgust the people who assemble to witness these contests.

"We want to play the game as our white friends play it. That is, in the spirit of fairness and for the benefits that the exercise will give us and the enjoyment we can afford to our friends."

Hart clearly envisioned basketball as entertainment, not just physical education. Like Ed Henderson and the 12th Street YMCA team, he seemed to recognize that a winning team of all-star performers would help further popularize the game in black New York. But Hart took his plan one step further than Henderson could in Jim Crow Washington. Hart calculated that his all-star aggregation had enough talent and skill to compete against white teams. Whether Hart reached this decision for financial or idealistic reasons is unclear, but his scheduling of local white club teams to begin the season probably marked the first attempt by a black team in America to cross over into white basketball.

Hart's ambition immediately landed him in trouble with New York's black athletic clubs. It is hard to imagine an athletic club of this era that would not be morally opposed to the New York All-Stars' playing basketball primarily for its entertainment value. Nor could the clubs have been pleased when Hart raided their best players to stock his team. Hart made off with St. Christopher's muscular center Charlie Bradford and most of Smart Set's top players, marking the end of basketball for the small Brooklyn club and leading to its eventual demise in 1915.
Hart quickly became a reviled figure in local basketball circles, with most clubs refusing to play his team. He parried in a measured tone: "This team was not formed for any spirit of revenge or to hurt any of the good clubs that are in the game, as has been rumored. . . . Neither are we professionals and we feel that we can show that this team will be a 'top notcher.'"

Having opened the season in October 1910, Hart's team had yet to prove it was a "top notcher" against white opponents. The All-Stars had logged a disappointing .500 record by early January 1911, an indication that the top black players in New York still had a lot to learn before they could compete against the best white teams. Still, the showdown between Howard and the All-Stars marked a key occasion for both teams. For Howard, it was a chance to defeat its top challenger for the title right off the bat. For Hart, it was the best attraction of the young season, one that would draw scores of local Howard alumni, and, ideally, convert them into fans of his much maligned team.

In the first half, Hart seemed to proved his critics wrong. Led by Bradford and forward Ferdinand Accooe, the All-Stars swamped Howard en route to an 11-2 halftime lead. But in the second half, Howard's fleet-footed Hudson Oliver stole the show, almost single-handedly tying the score at 16 apiece with just a few minutes left in the game and momentum squarely on Howard's side.

Then things got wild. According to the New York Age, the trouble started when an unnamed Howard cager got into a tiff with a now nameless All-Star. As the white referee Sam Melitzer stepped between the players, the Howardite called Melitzer a "short, mean name." Melitzer, with God and the Manhattan Casino crowd looking on, immediately raked a right cross at the Howard player, and a bench-clearing ruckus ensued. When order was restored, Howard's momentum had evaporated, and the All-Stars nudged ahead to claim a controversial 19-16 victory over the previously unbeaten 12th Street/Howard team.

Melitzer's controversial right cross set the stage for a rematch in late February in Washington's True Reformer's Hall. The game was held on a Tuesday night, an odd choice since most big games coincided with weekend dances to fatten the profit margin. This wasn't the only unusual feature. The All-Stars pulled into town without the services of their top player, Charlie Bradford. Hart claimed his star was sick and bedridden back in New York. His enemies sniped that Bradford had turned in his uniform for good, igniting more finger-pointing between Hart and his accusers.

Without Bradford clogging the middle, the Washington team was in control of the game. Ahead 16-7 at the start of the second half, Howard stormed out and gave its fans one of the greatest displays of basketball ever seen in True Reformer's Hall. It started with a chip shot by Gilmore. Then came a deuce from Nixon. Then came another deuce and another and another. When the twelve-minute barrage abated, Howard had racked up a 25-0 run. As the clock ticked down, the Howard student body rocked the hall with applause. Gilmore ended up with twenty points, Oliver netted seventeen, and Nixon added fourteen. The final score: Howard 69, All-Stars 14.
While Howard fans cheered, the New Yorkers rained down a torrent of "bah, humbugs." Members of the team claimed that the floor in True Reformer's Hall was too small for basketball, an issue that would flare up again over the next few seasons. The All-Stars pressed Howard for a return match in New York. Folks already were billing it as "the greatest basket ball game of the season."

That game was not to be. Howard closed out its season with a home-court pasting of Alpha and its second win of the season over Philadelphia's Wissahickon Boys Club, showing intercity play had spread to another eastern city. Because of Hart's checkered reputation and the season-ending rout of his team, few quibbled with Howard's claim to the 1911 championship. As soft-spoken Howard guard Ed Gray said, his team had spent the past two years battling "the most formidable teams of the East, and during these contests have had her colors lowered but once. This means that Howard in basket ball as in foot ball holds the championship among the best colored teams of the country."

The New York All-Stars closed the season as they had begun it--in controversy. In what amounted to a major society event, Hart partnered with the Amsterdam News to have the All-Stars play the popular Tenth U.S. Cavalry band and basketball team. At issue was whether it was proper for the public to attend the basketball social and patronize Hart's team.

"This game . . . provoked a newspaper wrangle, pro and con; exhibited feelings blue, bitter, vindictive, and otherwise; caused arguments in the home and on the corners; explanations tangled and tangled again," went one account, showing how popular basketball had become in mainstream black New York over the past few months.

In the end, about two thousand fans opted to watch the All-Stars defeat the Calvary team. But Hart's reputation as a shady promoter lived on. By the next season, he had moved on to become, according to an advertisement in the New York Age, manager of the torturously named Missionary Committee of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine for the Benefit of the Home for Working Girls and Boy Scouts. He left a watered-down version of his all-star team in the care of a local florist. The team would disband a few months later, marking the end of the first bold attempt to commercialize the black game.

Hart later rejoined the black game briefly with New York's Salem-Crescent Club. After World War I he moved to Buffalo, and during the 1920s he served there as a Prohibition officer. In July 1927, while on duty, Hart flipped his car. He died shortly thereafter from his injuries.


Black basketball bounced into Washington on a stretch of U Street N.W. from 7th Street, near Howard University, to 14th Street. Today, U Street is an eclectic avenue of decaying storefronts, trendy cafes, and vintage clothing stores. But for longtime Washingtonians, the street still invokes memories of the good old days when black culture and refinement was squeezed into a glittering half mile of shops, theaters, and restaurants.

In the teens, U Street had just come to life as the main thoroughfare for the blocks of middle-class, black-owned Victorian homes ringing Howard University. Locals referred to U Street as the Stroll, the Avenue, the Boulevard, the Rialto. Like Lenox Avenue would be during the heyday of Harlem, U Street was where the fashionable crowd came to put a swagger in its step, order a steak dinner, and blow smoke rings around the day's news. According to one longtime resident, the street marched to the beat of "gossip, sidestep, and spend."

At night, U Street pulsed with the country's finest black entertainment. At the Hiawatha, which billed itself as the nation's first black-financed movie house, a nickel bought a ticket to see silent whodunits with titles like The Exploits of Elaine and The Clutching Hand.

But the biggest shows in town--all the top acts on the black entertainment circuit--played the Howard Theater, a plush fifteen-hundred-seat venue just off U Street at 7th and T that catered to the cultivated tastes of high-society black folks. For some of these socialites, taking their box seats at the Howard was as much a part of their weekly ritual as sitting down to Sunday dinner.

While the good times rolled on U Street, a new day was dawning in the nation's capital. Once a backward federal town known for its dirt roads and stray cattle, the District had blossomed into a world-class city smitten with itself and its rising status in international affairs. The "New Washington" was a city of foreign diplomats and DuPont Circle mansions, Smithsonian masterpieces and State of the Union addresses. It was a genteel society whose leading citizens sauntered out of their homes each morning, socialized at tea parties and black-tie dinners, and retired to the beach when Congress recessed for the summer.

Folks flocked to Washington by the thousands. In 1905, the capital had swollen to 323,000 residents. By 1915, the number would top 437,000.

New neighborhoods sprouted like dandelions. On Pennsylvania Avenue, south of the Anacostia River, one dollar down bought a plot of land overlooking the city's many monuments and federal buildings. Near 16th Street, the tree-lined boulevard that some predicted would one day rival Manhattan's Park Avenue, a nine-room brownstone went for just six thousand dollars. In Chevy Chase, where land sold for as low as three cents a foot, high-hatted dandies boarded downtown-bound streetcars each morning at 7:45 sharp, puffing Cuban cigars and exchanging chit-chat. "Evidently the charms of the federal capital as a place of residence are beginning to make themselves felt," wrote the New York Tribune in 1905. "No city in the United States offers more to its inhabitants, and very few offer so much."

But many griped that Washington was too provincial ever to rival the great European seats of power. While gentlemen of the aristocracy lounged at the National Theatre, drunken throngs hooted at busty showgirls in the latest burlesque revues. In Georgetown and other middle-class neighborhoods, the scruffy set congregated curbside, swilling Old Purissima whiskey and ogling young women. On F Street, the heart of downtown, panhandling waifs thrust grimy cardboard signs into the hands of unsuspecting shoppers and whined, "Mister, please give me something on me card." Even the president of the United States wasn't immune. He could peer from any back window of the White House and behold clapboard shacks announcing the sale of pigs' feet, oysters, and ice cream.

High-minded citizens petitioned Congress to vote in a new era of enlightened laws to cultivate the social graces. They prodded authorities to raze the hundreds of alley shantytowns housing the city's poor and destitute. The Anti-Saloon League, more than five hundred members strong, lobbied to shut down the corner taverns and make the capital city dry as a bone. In 1908, the police chief recommended the whipping post for wife-beaters.

Amid this public outcry, some reformers took potshots at a familiar target, African Americans. Declaring racial equality a failure, many conservative whites griped about the thousands of "colored deep water folks" who wandered into Washington each year clad in "Prince Albert coats, checkered pants, wearing 'old Marse' Henry's style of a beaver [hat]." They cursed blacks who peddled moonshine in the alleys, bore children out of wedlock, and were prone to violence. Many whites took their prejudice one mental leap further. Since most had little or no social interaction with educated blacks living near Howard University, they adopted the opinion that all blacks were ghetto-dwellers at heart, and that the race was better suited to sweating in the field than toiling in the federal buildings.

As a result, Washington scrapped its experiment with racial equality at the turn of the century for the crude idiosyncrasies of word-of-mouth segregation. Stories circulated about Jim Crow restaurants, theaters, drugstores, and taverns popping up throughout the city. Other stories made the rounds about white shopkeepers' charging "Negro prices," which were always three to four times higher than the regular prices for white customers.

In 1913, newly elected president Woodrow Wilson paraded into Washington, according to one black newspaperman, "lugging his cracker cabinet and segregation policy" for the federal government.

Under President William Howard Taft, Wilson's predecessor, more than thirty blacks had held high-ranking federal positions. Under Wilson, a lone black appointee remained. With Wilson's blessing, government agencies began posting signs in their buildings declaring segregated workstations, bathrooms, lunchrooms, and even elevators. Those who disagreed with the policy found pink slips waiting for them. Uncle Sam had spoken.
"There is a whole lot of talent just going to shucks in the departments," wrote the Washington Bee. "Negroes who are as bright as a fresh-coined dollar and could eat up opportunities if they only had the nerve to cut loose from this segregating society. But they won't."

Although full-blown protest was still years away, segregation stoked the smoldering embers of race pride in black Washington. From the podium of the Bethel Literary and Historical Association to the pulpit of the Shiloh Baptist Church, black leaders cried out for unity. "It is in this land that we are to work out our salvation, that we are to demonstrate to the world of what material we are made," proclaimed Francis J. Grimke, pastor of the 15th Street Presbyterian Church. "It is of the utmost importance that we make no mistakes here, for as a twig is bent the tree inclines."

In this rigid, segregated society, Hudson Oliver and his Howard teammates labored with the same duality of being that burdened virtually all black men in America. On U Street, they were basketball players; in white neighborhoods, they were colored basketball players. On U Street, they were hailed as stars; in white neighborhoods, they were shunned as inferior athletes. On U Street, they were a team that others dreamed of playing; in white neighborhoods, they were a team that nobody could imagine playing.

But as black folks knew all too well, Jim Crow America hadn't been created in a day, nor would it be changed in one afternoon. The Howard Big Five played on, like the barnstorming black baseball teams that rolled through America every summer shrouded in varying shades of anonymity, simply for the love of the game. They had no other choice.


By December 1911, the Howard Big Five returned to the court with more firepower than any team in the black game. Not only did Howard return intact its championship combo of Nixon, Oliver, Gilmore, Gray, and Curtis, it added another star athlete named Snake Sykes, who could score at will. By its sixth game of the season, Howard had a perfect record, had manhandled the top New York teams, and had outscored its opponents by a combined 251-59.

Then the champions ran into bad luck. The trouble started in late February 1912 when Howard traveled to Virginia to play Hampton Institute, its first encounter with a fellow college team and quite possibly the first black intercollegiate game ever played in America.

Though Hampton had a large, brand-new, five-hundred-seat gymnasium, the men from the farm-and-trade school were muddling their way through their first season of organized basketball. On paper, this game would be no more than a tune-up before Howard embarked on its first trip to Pittsburgh to face the Monticello Athletic Association. Hudson Oliver and company would simply trot out, wow the crowd with their fancy passing, then call it an early night.

Hampton forgot to read the script. Fielding a squad of scrappy New Yorkers who had played basketball for a few years, Hampton clawed its way to an early advantage. Without regulars Doc Curtis and team captain Henry Nixon in the lineup, Howard couldn't dent the lead. Gilmore, coming off a gaudy, twenty-five-point effort against Alpha, clanked in just one hoop. Snake Sykes, who had scored an amazing fifty-four points in two games, was good that night for two baskets. Even reliable Hudson Oliver rattled through just one field goal.

Despite their shooting woes, the champions managed to pull within a basket of Hampton with under two minutes left to play. The champs got the ball back one last time and headed upcourt. Gilmore signaled a play. Whipping the basketball to and fro as they had done so many times before down the stretch, the Howard players sliced through the Hampton defense and trickled one through to send the game to overtime.

The newspaper accounts are unclear on what happened next. In the five-minute extra period both teams slugged it out. But it was Hampton that punched out the game winner for a 19-16 upset, pinning Howard with only its second defeat in two years.

With that loss, Howard's upcoming battle in Pittsburgh took on enormous meaning. If Howard shut down Monticello, the Hampton loss would be old news. If the champs choked in Pittsburgh, it would be the end of their 1912 championship bid.

The Howardites knew getting out of Pittsburgh with a win would be no easy chore. Monticello suited up the slickest black cager around in thirty-one-year-old Cumberland Posey Jr. The lean, light-skinned Posey had been a star forward on Penn State's 1911 team before he left school in a spat over grades. Posey's game was to bomb from long range, an unpopular tactic in most gyms in America. Coaches wanted high-percentage lay-ups, or chip shots. "Scientific basketball," they called it. But in the small, happy-go-lucky world of black basketball, Posey had the green light to step beyond the free-throw stripe and fire.

That season, Posey had been the star attraction on a top-flight basketball team at Pittsburgh's Colored YMCA. Though the YMCA club mowed down several white teams in Pittsburgh, the squad hadn't been a smash at the box office. By February, Posey and crew formed their own independent club team, which they named the Monticello Athletic Association after the street on which two of the players lived.

With a few practices behind it, Monticello lured Howard to Pittsburgh for a game. If the team upset the defending black champions, Posey could make a strong case that Monticello deserved the 1912 black crown and, as a titled team, land games in the larger, more lucrative dance halls of New York. Posey planned to beat Howard--even if it meant cheating, as Hudson Oliver and his teammates soon would discover.

On March 8, 1912, the two teams tangled under the dim lights of Washington Park Fieldhouse, a tiny, city-owned gym. Though the venue lacked glamour, the stands brimmed with a fashionable, high-society crowd that had come to witness the first black intercity basketball game ever played in Pittsburgh. Gilmore shook hands with Monticello center Sell Hall, the ball went up, and the show was on.

The first half offered the standard fare of pushing and grabbing around the basket, but Howard managed to bang out a few hoops to take the early lead. Enter Cum Posey. With under five minutes left in the half, Posey let the laces fly. And fly. And fly. Even Howard's muscle-bound defensive ace Ed Gray, who had given up one basket all season on defense, couldn't cuff Posey. By intermission, Posey's aerial show had propelled Monticello to a 9-8 lead, and the second half promised to be a doozy.

Then things got weird. Having battled under college rules in the first half, Monticello manager Joe Mahoney let it be known the second half would be played under YMCA rules, one of four sets of rules then in use in men's basketball. Under the college rules, the Howardites were allowed to dribble around the court and, as in today's game, shoot at will. Not so under the YMCA rules. Players were permitted a single bounce to avoid a charging defender, and shooting off the dribble was strictly forbidden.

Being unfamiliar with the YMCA rules, the Howard players balked at Mahoney's demand. Mahoney persevered, claiming the college rules were all Greek to a club team like Monticello. Why should his team be handicapped for the entire game? After further squawking, Mahoney got his way. Fair was fair.

Or was it? Cum Posey, as a former college star, was clearly well-versed in the dos and don'ts of the college game. So were his teammates. Posey even fessed up in a newspaper article thirty years later that the Monticellos often pulled this stunt "to bewilder the opposition"and gain the upper hand in the second half.
According to the Pittsburgh Courier, "Howard was completely dazed" under the new rules, and its "reputed team work was nowhere in evidence."The Monticellos, sensing they now had the edge, went for the jugular in the second half. In no time, Posey's boys built a four-point bulge.

But as in the Hampton game, the Howardites came back one last time, YMCA rules or not. Gilmore, whose shooting the New York Age called "of the sensational order,"kept nailing clutch baskets to keep Howard close. With under three minutes to play, Gilmore and his mates narrowed the gap to a single point, 20-19. Howard, as the more veteran ball club, smelled victory, and all it needed now was the ball and a game-winning basket.

Once again, enter Cum Posey. With the over-and-back rule still twenty years down the road, Posey darted into the backcourt on Monticello's next possession, well over twenty feet from the hoop, and found some open space. He took a pass, squared, and fired. Nothing but net. He now had fifteen points on the night. Monticello 22, Howard 19. After the center jump, Monticello forward Sell Hall found himself open at midcourt clutching the basketball. He measured and "pulled a Posey," arching the ball through the hoop for his only points of the evening. Monticello 24, Howard 19. It was all over.

Posey and his teammates uncorked the postgame celebration, belting out speeches like politicians on election night. "The backers of Monticello feel safe in claiming the colored basketball championship of the country and stand ready to defend it against all comers," declared the Pittsburgh Courier in a front-page story.23 Posey and company even told the New York Age which teams they deemed worthy opponents for a championship game, omitting Howard from the list.

Howard finished the season on a tear. It routed Lincoln University, its second intercollegiate game, then twice thumped its old nemesis the New York All-Stars. But in the end, public opinion would crown Monticello the champion. "As this is Howard's third defeat in three years [counting the record of the 12th Street YMCA team], the colored basketball world will be forced to recognize Monticello as one of the fastest of colored quints," wrote the New York Age, a measured but clear declaration that Monticello had won the title.

The sudden turn of events opened the Howardites' eyes to the dangers of playing independent club teams. Because these clubs were accountable only to themselves, as Monticello had shown, some played fast and loose with the rules to win games and build their reputations.

Those who sat on the Howard Athletic Council hoped more black colleges would develop competitive basketball teams. Ten years earlier, such hope might have seemed unrealistic. But a month before the Monticello game, Howard had joined the Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association, or CIAA, the first large black collegiate conference in America. With a little money and luck, the CIAA would organize black college sports and place them on track to one day compete against white colleges.


The story of the CIAA began in early September 1909 as the dozen or so members of the Howard University football team trained on campus for the upcoming season. Cheering the squad from the sidelines was its new coach, Ernest Jones Marshall, a tall, twenty-year-old college graduate and recent addition to Howard's chemistry department.

Though Marshall was younger than some of his players, in this era of volunteer faculty coaches he was the logical choice to try to reverse the fortunes of the underachieving football team. Marshall had been a star offensive tackle at Exeter Academy and Williams College, both highly regarded white institutions in Massachusetts. He also had spent a year studying at the University of Michigan, where he observed how a well-funded football program could produce outstanding student athletes and generate thousands of dollars in profits for a university.

At Howard, Marshall discovered the football team was more an afterthought than the centerpiece of campus life.

The problem wasn't talent; the team featured several outstanding athletes. The trouble, according to Marshall, was the perennial head-in-the-sand neglect of sports by university administrators. In particular, he cited their failure to build a fence around the football field, which would have forced students to purchase tickets instead of watching games for free, and their inability to secure the requisite funds to pay for team equipment, travel, and competent referees for games.

"Our athletic tax is too small," he wrote, referring to the one dollar each student paid, or twelve hundred dollars total, that financed Howard's six teams: football, basketball, baseball, track, cricket, and tennis. "The men who engage in the sports at Howard are put to great personal sacrifices on this account and cannot be properly equipped. We are endeavoring to support too many branches of sport with the small revenue which comes from the tax."

By the fall of 1911, Marshall had seen enough of the second-rate conditions at Howard and its rival black colleges. In one of the seminal moments in the history of black collegiate sport, Marshall posted a letter to every black college in America inviting them to join him in forming the first black intercollegiate athletic association. Marshall hoped a dozen or so colleges would answer his letter, adopt a standard set of eligibility rules, and impose a sense of order on black collegiate athletics, including basketball.

Marshall received just four replies: Hampton Institute in Virginia; Lincoln University in southeastern Pennsylvania; Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina; and Virginia Union College in Richmond. For Marshall, a good-natured, idealistic young man, the number of replies hardly mattered. His idea was timely, and he intended to forge on with it.

On February 12, 1912, Marshall and the delegates from the four other institutions held a planning session on the Hampton campus. "For two days these delegates met in morning, afternoon and evening sessions, their deliberations being largely guided by the letter sent out by Mr. Marshall which suggested a permanent organization, the introduction of a 'four-year [eligibility] rule,' a 'scholarship standing rule,' and a rule for 'time for matriculation of new students,'" wrote Hampton's Charles Williams, who attended the session and who, by the late teens, would be the leading voice of the new organization.

Black collegiate athletics had always been as unpredictable as the weather, Williams knew. "During the early period of athletic development in our schools, some men were known to have played football for twelve years," he wrote. "On one of the teams at that time it was said that every man had played at least eight years and some even more. . . . There were no transfer rules and players often went from one school to another, playing continuously on athletic teams."

Nor were the referees always on the level. Williams recalled a game in which a team "carried the ball over the goal line four times. Each time the referee brought the ball back for some infraction of the football code. When it was carried across the goal line for the fourth time there was such a threatening demonstration on the part of the enraged football fans that after consultation with officials it was decided that the play was good and the touchdown counted."

Betting on games was common, and fans sometimes couldn't contain their emotions. In one case, Williams wrote, "the center recovered a fumbled punt and was on his way to a touchdown when a spectator stepped in the field of play near the goal line with a board and dared the runner to cross the goal line."

At the start of their two-day session, the delegates voted to approve the formation of the Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association. The delegates elected Marshall as their president, a post he held until 1915, and formed a three-member committee to draft a list of proposed rules and a second committee to develop a constitution and bylaws. In May the committees presented their recommendations and all delegates ratified the CIAA constitution. "By this fall it is hoped that other institutions will join the association, and that the work of putting intercollegiate athletics on the highest plane possible will be pushed forward."

Marshall and his colleagues already had committed to paper a plan to expand the CIAA into a national regulatory body, a smaller black version of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. During their second meeting, the delegates passed a resolution declaring that "the country be divided into sections as follows: (a) Georgia, Florida, and Alabama; (b) North and South Carolina; (c) Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee; (d) Texas; (e) Louisiana, Arkansas, and Kansas; and that an active man be secured in each district to push the association."

But the plan fizzled for two reasons. Most colleges, already on shoestring budgets, feared that joining the CIAA would commit them to mandatory league schedules and increased travel costs. As many no doubt asked, why should they travel eight hours to play Howard, a trip that the school and most of its fans could not afford, when a Saturday afternoon game with a rival local high school club cost them nothing? Second, many colleges worried that with the competition improving and athletic talent in short supply, the CIAA's eligibility rules would leave them with no players.

"The first objection is based on a misunderstanding," wrote Marshall, referring to increased travel costs. "The members of the Association are not required to play with one another unless they find it convenient to do so.
"The second objection has more weight, especially with those institutions whose work is, by necessity, mostly for preparatory departments," he wrote. Most black colleges of this era included college preparatory schools, and many prep students played on the varsity football and basketball teams. This meant prep students conceivably could enroll at an institution for eight school years: that is, high school and college.

"In such institutions it does seem a hardship to limit a player to four years," Marshall continued. "The proper solution of the difficulty, however, does not consist of nullifying the four year rule, but in the elimination of preparatory school pupils from teams called 'University,'" a controversial proposal that the CIAA would not adopt for several years.

Given the continued cool response to the league, the CIAA might have died a nearly instantaneous death. As it was, the association operated almost exclusively under an intercollegiate honor code in its early years, not as the competitive league that one sees today. Its five member schools voluntarily enforced the four-year eligibility rule and other lesser prohibitions. That was it. The only practical advantage of membership was a list of CIAA-approved referees who agreed to provide their services for a reduced rate. Besides that, CIAA schools had nothing to lose but their honor in breaking a rule. The CIAA had no two-year probations to hand down, like the NCAA does today, and even if it did, the sanctions would have been meaningless. The association still operated no competitive league schedules in its sanctioned sports, including basketball, and neither did it award championships.

How did the CIAA survive? One reason is the high quality of the founding schools. Howard, Hampton, and Lincoln were among the most prominent black colleges in the country, and all were already bitter arch rivals. In a sense, the lack of a competitive league schedule was irrelevant, because these three schools would have played each other in football and basketball regardless. Moreover, Shaw was known for its fine football teams, and the weakest link, Virginia Union, benefited from playing nearby Hampton and Howard.

Another factor was the commitment and high character of the CIAA's founding fathers. In addition to Marshall and Williams, they included Shaw's Charles R. Frazer, W. E. Watkins, and H. P. Hargrave; Virginia Union's J. W. Barco and J. W. Pierce; Hampton's Allen Washington; and Lincoln's George Johnson. These men refused to compromise their principles for personal gain. Brotherhood seemed to rule the day, not petty jealousy, as was sometimes the case in early black sports.

Just as important, did these schools really have an option? Marshall and Williams had been trained in white northern colleges, and they realized, in Marshall's words, that black colleges "should begin to run their athletics on strict business principles, and at once do away with loose and disorderly methods which are now in vogue."

At the same time, the founders of the CIAA believed, like Ed Henderson before them, that the race could use sports to its advantage, and that they had a responsibility to organize intercollegiate athletics for future generations.

"The manner in which the Negro has forged his way to the front of Northern colleges is sufficient to cause us to believe that in the near future the athletes of our Colored colleges of the South will rank among the best in the country," wrote Marshall in an interesting reversal of Henderson's theme of developing black athletes in the South to send to white colleges in the North. "When our schools and colleges begin to give attention to the physical as well as the mental and moral development of the youth, we may expect to see the Negro reach a high mark in the athletic world."

The emergence of the CIAA, however, had little impact on black college basketball during the teens. The Howard Big Five, for instance, was comprised of students enrolled in either the university or its medical school, meaning the CIAA's four-year rule was a moot point. Because Howard already had athletic ties with Hampton and Lincoln, the CIAA offered no other viable competition. Shaw and Virginia Union had horrible basketball teams, and Howard continued to round out its season schedule with the top club teams on the East Coast.

Still, the CIAA represented an escape hatch for the Howard Big Five. Though the trips to New York and Pittsburgh were the buzz of the campus in the winter, Howard officials had tired of their dealings with Cum Posey, Major Hart, and those of their ilk. They longed for the uniformity and organization that the CIAA promised. Howard just had to wait for other nearby colleges, such Morgan in Baltimore, to develop quality teams. That wouldn't take place until the 1920s, when eligibility and transfer rules, personal jealousies, and the meddling of fraternities in sports would divide and nearly destroy the association.

By then, Ernest Marshall, the driving force behind the CIAA, would be gone from Howard. Marshall joined the army at the outbreak of World War I, and upon his discharge he enrolled in medical school at Northwestern University in Chicago. He was awarded his M.D. in 1927, then performed his residency in Kansas City's General Hospital, where Howard's Ed Gray had interned. Marshall opened a doctor's office in Kansas City, where he would live and work for the next thirty years. He died in August 1959 after a long illness.

Today his contributions to the CIAA are largely forgotten. But his vision of organized black intercollegiate athletics lives on, with the CIAA now in its ninth decade of operation.


By the 1912-13 season, intercity competition had become a staple of the black game. No longer did facing the best teams mean making a three-day trip to Washington or New York. Intercity competition had grown in just four seasons into an expanding network of towns and cities that also included Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Newark, Baltimore, and Atlantic City, and the college campuses of Howard, Hampton, and Lincoln. In a few more seasons, the network would extend into the Midwest and New England.

The black game also had begun to develop a deeper pool of talent. At Harlem's St. Christopher Club, where teams were said to have the luxury of practicing "two hours a day regularly," the seeds already had been sown for the next great New York team. At Hampton, under the direction of Harvard-trained physical educator Charles Williams, another outstanding college team was in the making. At the same time, a boom in the construction of YMCAs for black men was under way, which would have a profound impact on the training of young players in cities throughout the country.

But in 1913, the black game's two best teams remained the Howard Big Five and Pittsburgh's champion Monticello Athletic Club. Howard clearly had the more talent and cohesiveness as a team, with most of its stars having played together for four years. George Gilmore now was the best center in the black game, Ed Gray was the best defender, and Hudson Oliver was probably the second-best player overall.

The title of best player overall belonged to Monticello's thin, sandy-haired Cum Posey. According to some, Posey stood shoulder to shoulder with Paul Robeson, Henry Lloyd, Oscar Charleston, and other great black baseball and football players as the finest athlete of his generation. "Giants crumpled and quit before the fragile-looking Posey," recalled the Pittsburgh Courier's W. Rollo Wilson in the late 1920s. "He was at once a ghost, a buzz saw, and a 'shooting fool.' The word 'quit' has never been translated for him."

With the hot-shooting Posey on its roster, Monticello stood a decent chance of repeating as the black champion in 1913. But as in his first showdown with Howard, Posey didn't want even odds; he wanted to stack the deck in his favor by weaving a series of special requests into the contract negotiations. Posey always seemed to get the better end of the deal, a point that irked his competitors and became an element of his popular legend.

Posey's prickliness was in full force in 1913, when Howard's Henry Nixon, a business major, attempted to arrange a title series with Monticello. Problems began around New Year's Day, when Nixon assumed he had finalized a three-game championship series with Monticello, with the first battle set for January 17 in True Reformer's Hall. Nixon already had mailed a contract for the final signature of Richard Garrison, the new Monticello manager, and as far as Nixon was concerned, the two teams had reached an agreement.

A few days before the first game, no doubt after consultation with Posey, Garrison and his assistant J. A. Norris returned the contract--unsigned. They said Monticello would never put its title on the line in an old sardine can like True Reformer's Hall, with its cranky rims, low ceiling, loose floorboards, and crazy obstacle course of iron poles ringing the court.

With the game just a few days away and signs plastered along U Street touting the championship showdown, Nixon and Howard assistant manager Clarence Richardson felt the squeeze. The two men scoured the city for an alternate site, but with no luck. Finally, the leaders of the white YMCA agreed to let Howard book its new gymnasium for the contest, a small miracle in these early days of segregation. There was only one hitch--the YMCA was a private club, and no nonmembers would be permitted to enter the gymnasium. Or, in the racial shorthand of the day, no colored patrons would be permitted to attend the game. It was a lot to swallow; but still, it was a large, neutral court, and a frantic Richardson clicked off a telegram to Pittsburgh proposing Plan B. The Monticellos responded with one word: "Unsatisfactory."

Richardson was outraged. He fired off a letter to the New York Age in which he derided the Monticellos, denounced their championship, decried YMCA rules, and denigrated club teams. This diatribe sparked a nasty exchange of letters in the newspaper between Norris and Richardson:

Norris: "[T]he thing that touched me most was not his dastardly attack on Monticello or his unprincipled comment on the game last year; it was his bold intimation that they regretted playing city teams. . . . This slur does not stop with Monticello; it includes the host of other city teams that has entertained Howard."

Richardson: "He calls on all clubs in Christendom to resent the bigotry of Howard. I do not question (as he insinuates) the moral, the social, or the intellectual status of the Monticello or any other club. . . . What I do question is their sportsmanship, and on this point I need no modification."

Norris: "We told Mr. Nixon in the middle of December and continued to tell him that we would not play in True Reformer's Hall. But Howard . . . goes on with this arrangement certain in the end the social glamour would ensnare us against our best interest; for it is a well known fact that Howard slaughters every team she plays in True Reformer's Hall, not so much on account of the inability of the enemy as the disadvantage of the hall."

Richardson: "If he will carry his investigation a step further, he will find that every team, save one [Monticello], that Howard has 'slaughtered' in True Reformer's Hall she has beaten by a larger margin in the team's own home town. The one--as Mr. Norris well knows--would not give us a return game."

It took the intervention of two New Yorkers to finally bring together the teams from Pittsburgh and Washington. Romeo Dougherty, sports editor of New York's Amsterdam News and a dyed-in-the-wool basketball fan, already had gotten the go-ahead from Howard's Henry Nixon to try to stage the game in New York. To coax the matter forward, Dougherty joined forces with New York sports promoter Nat Strong, a white, middle-aged wheeler-dealer who bankrolled some of the top black professional baseball teams on the East Coast. Dougherty and Strong urged the teams back to the bargaining table, and within a week or so both sides had hammered out an agreement. They would settle their differences on Thursday evening, March 13, in a winner-take-all match in New York's Manhattan Casino.

"The morning of the 13th found both teams on Manhattan Isle in good physical condition and after each team in turn had taken an hour's work-out on the casino court, they each went to bed in their respective quarters to sleep and dream the matter over," wrote the Howard University Journal. "At nightfall they rose to meet in the contest which was to decide which way the championship should go."

At 10 p.m. sharp, the two teams gathered at midcourt. Gilmore and Posey shook hands in the center circle, scuffing their sneakers and eyeing their teammates. "When referee Zinovoy of New York University blew the whistle as a signal to start and tossed the ball into the air," wrote the Howard University Journal, "twelve hundred anxious spectators involuntarily rose to their feet to see what would happen."

What happened was magic. Gilmore tapped to the streaking Snake Sykes, who flipped the ball over his head for Hudson Oliver; Oliver speared the pass out of the air and zipped the ball across court to the waiting Ed Gray. Howard looked untouchable, and the irony was the first half was being played with the same YMCA rules that had hamstrung the team a year ago in Pittsburgh.

At the other end of the floor, Posey looked lost. Matched against tall George Gilmore to start the game, the five-foot-ten Posey couldn't get a good look at the hoop through Gilmore's octopus arms. Frustrated, Posey switched to Hudson Oliver, who clung to the Pittsburgh superstar as tenaciously as Gilmore had. On one possession, Posey dribbled downcourt with Oliver bumping him toward the sideline, blocking his path to the hoop. When Posey reached the far baseline boxed in with nowhere to go, the catlike Oliver batted the ball away, grabbed it, and bounded back downcourt. Oliver looked up and flipped the basketball to a waiting Snake Sykes. The Snake Man set and flicked--two points.

So it went. After a few early miscues to start the second half, Howard pushed its lead into double digits playing under the more familiar college rules. Five minutes later, Oliver, Gilmore, and company had busted the game wide open, cruising to a 33-15 final. "I think I speak in all fairness to Pittsburgh when I say that her trouble was, not that she was not playing to form, but that her form was inadequate," crowed Clarence Richardson in celebration of the school's second championship in three seasons.

Back in the locker room, Oliver, Gray, Nixon, and the other members of the Howard Big Five yanked off their soggy blue-and-white jerseys for the last time. Each was scheduled to graduate in the summer, and as they changed back into their street clothes, they had to have been pleased that they had had the last say in their year-long war with Cum Posey.

With the NBA still forty years off, none of the graduating Howard stars was concerned about finding agents or signing multiyear deals. They collected their diplomas and went on to spend their lives giving back to the black community that had claimed and nurtured them.

"To say that he will be missed is putting it mildly," wrote the Howard University Journal of the popular man-about-campus Henry Nixon. "His unassuming manner, his cordiality, yes, even, his ponderous olfactory passage will be longed for by many."

Nixon, a native of Alabama, accepted a position teaching science at Louisville's black Central High School. While there, he brought basketball to black Louisville, coaching and even playing on the high school team for several seasons until his untimely death in the 1920s.

Gray, who played for Howard in the days when medical students were eligible for varsity sports, set off for an internship at General Hospital in Kansas City. By the summer of 1916 he had opened a doctor's office in Cincinnati, where he would spend his career as a pillar of the black community, helping to establish a hospital and a chain of drugstores. "My father was a quiet man," recalled his daughter Corolynne Branson. "But he was very generous and would lend people who were in need of money. I thought the sun rose and set with him." In 1943, at age fifty-three, he died after a brief illness.

Oliver, also a medical student, eventually opened a practice at 257 West 139th Street, not far from Manhattan Casino. There, he treated the sick for the next thirty years, until his death in 1955 at the age of sixty-six. Throughout his professional career, Oliver was feted as a pioneering basketball star, the speedy forward who led the Howard Big Five to victory over the great Cum Posey.

Perhaps the biggest complement of all came in 1928 when Pittsburgh Courier sportswriter W. Rollo Wilson, a friend of Posey's, heaved a sigh and wrote, "Howard never had a greater team than Gilmore, Sykes, Gray, Nixon, and Oliver. And never did anyone else."

Bob Kuska is a science writer for the National Institutes of Health

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